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In ‘Little Green,’ an Old, Familiar Character Makes an Easy Comeback

June 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The last time readers heard from detective Easy Rawlins, he was driving off a cliff. But Rawlins, one of the best-known characters in American literature, returns -- alive -- in a new novel called "Little Green." Jeffrey Brown talks to author Walter Mosley about his new book and more.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, the return of a popular mystery series.

When last seen, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins was driving over a cliff, apparently to his death. Rawlins is the fictional private eye who in the course of a dozen books has become one of the best-known, longest-running characters in American literature. His latest adventure is told in the new novel “Little Green.”

Author Walter Mosley has written more than 40 books in many genres and received numerous honors. He joined us here earlier this week.

Walter Mosley, welcome.

WALTER MOSLEY, Author, “Little Green”: It’s good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: The return of a dead man, right?

WALTER MOSLEY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You seemed to kill off your famous hero, and then brought him back to life. Why?

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, it was first-person narrative. He wasn’t dead.

He went off the cliff, and everything went black. I didn’t say, “I died.” I just said he went off the cliff.

I stopped writing the books because I felt I was getting stale writing the character, and I wanted to stop. And then four, five years went by, and I went, I could come back to that and do that again. And so I started over again. I did intend to end the series, but here we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: I see comparisons to Sherlock — you know, Arthur Conan Doyle kills off Sherlock Holmes and brings him back again.

It’s hard to kill off a character like this.

WALTER MOSLEY: Yes, it is difficult.

And people want you to rewrite it. And I’m not really sure why Doyle came — I mean, I know he came back and he wrote it again. I don’t know if it was because he didn’t have money or the people were just bothering him too much. I really want to write about Easy, so …

JEFFREY BROWN: For those who don’t know the Easy Rawlins books, they’re set in a very particular place, Los Angeles, and particularly in the Watts area, in a time, post-World War II, from the ’40s, and now this one up to the ’60s.

WALTER MOSLEY: 1968.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is all of that by accident, or did you sort of — did you just find a character and you wanted to stick with him, or did you want to explore a time and place?

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, there was a couple of things.

Definitely, that’s where I’m from. I’m born in ’52 in Los Angeles. My family came in, in 1945-’46, mother and father from different places. And in order to put people inside the culture, you have to be inside the literature. And the black population of Los Angeles just didn’t have a literature, really, not much of one anyway.

And so I decided I would write these books, so I could write about Los Angeles. I could write about post-war Los Angeles. I could write about black Los Angeles. I could do all of those things together.

JEFFREY BROWN: You had that in mind, just that there was a vacuum among particularly black literature?

WALTER MOSLEY: Yes. Oh, yes, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because one of the running jokes in the book, although it’s a serious line, is often when somebody meets Easy Rawlins for the first time and they find out what he does and they say, I never met a black private eye before. And he says, “We’re a rare breed.”

WALTER MOSLEY: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which he is.

WALTER MOSLEY: Yes.

He’s a new character for this world. And he’s somebody who goes into places where other people can’t go, being a black man, because nobody thinks that there’s a black detective. So, he says, they don’t see me coming. They don’t know when I’m there. And they don’t know I have left. That’s the way he — that’s the way his life is.

And it makes him an almost perfect detective.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that allows you to look at various strains of American culture, right, in this case, the ’60s. Post-Watts Riots is the setting.

WALTER MOSLEY: And the beginning of the hippy movement, which is a whole other surprising event in California at this time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

WALTER MOSLEY: You know, if you’re in California in 1964, it’s one Los Angeles. And if you’re there in 1968, there are all these hippies everywhere. Where did they come from? How did they have time to grow that hair? It was pretty amazing.

And I’m really enjoying it because, you know, it’s — because so many stories have been told about L.A., but these stories, almost every one is a new story because of the point of view, not because it’s a some secret that’s being …

JEFFREY BROWN: Because of the new time as well.

WALTER MOSLEY: Yes. Yes. And everybody’s like, you know, experiencing a different kind of world. And it’s changing so quickly.

JEFFREY BROWN: You — as I said, you write in many styles and genres.

And the Easy Rawlins books are often — well, they’re usually defined as crime fiction, mysteries. Do you think of them that way, or do you even think about different genres as you’re working?

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, I think about genre somewhat, because once I’m in the genre, I would like to be — I like to be true to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

WALTER MOSLEY: I don’t want to be one of those writers who says, well, I’m not really a mystery writer.

Well, when I write a mystery, it’s a mystery. When I write a literary novel, it’s a literary novel, science fiction, science fiction.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does being true to a mystery …

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, I mean, that there’s a crime that’s been committed that exists on a legal level, on a social level, and on a moral level, and, if you’re really, really good at it, on a philosophical level.

And there has to be an answer, not necessarily a solution, but an answer to that crime, like, well, who did it? Why did they do it? Should you turn them in? A whole series of questions, and that’s what mysteries do.

JEFFREY BROWN: But if you’re really good at it, you’re saying a level that’s beyond the whodunit?

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, if you’re really good at it, it makes you think about the nature of the society.

I think, at the end of this book, Easy has to make a few choices. And I — hopefully, it will make you think about the choices he has to make and why. And that goes a little bit beyond the mystery, but it stays right inside the crime. So …

JEFFREY BROWN: And, presumably, a good mystery has to be a good — I mean, qualities of a novel are the qualities of a novel.

WALTER MOSLEY: Yes, good writing is good writing, and bad writing is bad writing.

People say, well — you will say, well, this genre is better writing than this genre. I say, well, how can that possibly be? They both have sentences and words, and they’re both in English. How can one be better than the other?

But there are a lot of people who do think like that. My genre, when I’m writing crime fiction, is one thing. But, like, science fiction, people completely eschew. And, romance, oh, my God, that’s terrible writing. But it’s not necessarily. If you’re a good writer, you write a good book.

JEFFREY BROWN: I have talked to biographers who have stayed with one subject for decades. You have done that as well. Is it still fulfilling? Is it still fun?

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, it’s an interesting thing. The topic that I stay with the most is black male heroes. And I think …

JEFFREY BROWN: In all these different genres.

WALTER MOSLEY: Yes, and because I’m one of the few people really ever in the history of literature in the West who writes about black male heroes.

There are a lot of protagonists, but I’m talking about heroes. I think it’s really important, because every culture has their heroes. It’s just that black men, people are kind of afraid of them for various reasons, various guilts, various, I don’t know, issues. And so I like to write about them, and I don’t think that that’s running out of fashion yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, will there be more?

WALTER MOSLEY: Oh, yes. I have actually finished the next Easy Rawlins novel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really?

WALTER MOSLEY: My editor just today, as I was coming here, sent me an e-mail saying he has accepted the new novel. So …

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, more Easy Rawlins. This one is “Little Green.”

Walter Mosley, thanks so much.

WALTER MOSLEY: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: My conversation with Walter Mosley continues online, where we ask some of your questions sent in ahead of time. And you can also see him read from his new novel. That’s all on our Art Beat page.